Just Say 'Nu?': Food and Drink, Part 3

Since we’ve already had a glimpse of the main categories of Yiddish food, today we’ll look at everything you need for a balanced meal: vegetable, grains, main courses, a few uniquely Yiddish side dishes and something to wash it all down with.


For reasons that remain obscure, Yiddish hasn’t seen fit to develop many idioms or turns of phrase involving fruit. With the exception of such clichés as

which you might as well just say in English, fruit doesn’t come out of Yiddish-speaking mouths with anything approaching the frequency with which it goes in.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are well-represented idiomatically, and the ones named above figure in some highly useful phrases:

As for the kroyt, or cabbage, it should never be forgotten that old country yokels used to cover their heads with cabbage leaves when there were no yarmulkes to hand.

Baked Goods and Their Toppings


If someone offers you laikakh and presents you with honey cake, announce that you’d been expecting sponge; if sponge appears, it’s honey that you wanted. A sigh, a rueful shake of the head, and a single useful phrase suffice for either situation:

Or you could say,

Just remember: Laikakh is always the one you don’t get.


In an effort to promote the maximum possible confusion between English and Yiddish, the haddock is known as a shelfish.


Warner Brothers’ Daffy, incidentally, is not a katshkeh; he’s a KOOtsher. When used of individual members of the species, katshkeh denotes a female.

A kishkeh is an intestine or gut, and the kishkehs are as fine a place as any to land a blow or stow a meal.

People who laugh their heads or behinds off in English, laugh themselves out of their kishkehs in Yiddish:


Yiddish Dishes That Have the Same Name in English

You don’t need to know what they are, just be sure to demand them — unless you’re in a kosher restaurant, where your bluff might well be called. You want everybody to know that your equivalent of Proust’s madeleine is a bean-based stew rounded out with leftover meat and left to simmer from Thursday night to Saturday afternoon (tshoolnt) or a fruit or vegetable stew, the most popular version of which is made with carrots and canned pineapple (tsimes).

The kigl can also cause your life to flash before your eyes, as can a nice plate of matseh-brei. Kigl, usually called kugel in English, is a “pudding” — whatever pudding means when it isn’t rice, tapioca or Jell-O — made from either noodles (lokshn kigl) or potatoes (kartofl kigl), but never from both at once. It’s so definitively Yiddish a food that preferences for noodle kugels of varying degrees of sweetness are used by ethnographers to determine the internal boundaries of East European Jewish culture.

Matseh-brei, though equally subject to regional variations, is as close as Yiddish cuisine is likely to come to bacon and eggs. Soak some matzoh in water until it’s soft — not soggy, soft — scramble it up with some eggs (anywhere between one egg to every two sheets of matzoh to one egg per sheet, depending on taste) and enjoy…. A memory that one or the other of these can’t summon is a memory that I don’t have.

A Mendel of Eggs

In the old country, eggs were sold fifteen at a time, rather than by the dozen. In the area around Lodz in Poland, where my paternal grandfather came from, a package of fifteen eggs was known as a mendl, just like the male personal name:

Mendel is a very common name, but a mendl of eggs doesn’t translate into English as a “marty.” In other parts of the Yiddish-speaking world, a mendl was called a mandl, which can also mean “almond” or “tonsil.” mendl itself can also mean “sheaf,” and might well be responsible for the Salvation Army’s failure to make much headway in the Yiddish-speaking world. I can’t imagine anyone being converted by a hymn that speaks of “bringing in the mendls, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the mendls.” It sounds more like a threat than a prophecy.


Zaft, of course, gives us the fabulous zaftik (sometimes spelled zoftig in English), which is supposed to mean “juicy” rather than “hefty.” A zaftik veib is a “juicy woman”— round and firm and fully-packed, she makes a man want to give a squeeze. The widespread English use of zaftik as a euphemism for “fat” owes more to Yiddish irony than to shifting notions of feminine beauty; it’s like calling a heavy woman “well filled-out” in English. Zaftik in Yiddish is closer to “built.”

Next month: Alcohol.

Adapted from “Just Say Nu,” by Michael Wex. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

Written by

Michael Wex

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